Sitemaps 101: What They Are, Why You Need Them, and How to Create One

SEO is always a part of the conversation when it comes to creating and maintaining successful websites. However, in all the rush to find the best keywords, acquire high-quality backlinks, and write engaging meta descriptions, there is an important web SEO tool that often gets overlooked – sitemaps.

A sitemap is a relatively simple addition to your website that is often underestimated. Nonetheless, it can have a significant impact on your SEO strategy. Website sitemaps are a vital piece of the SEO puzzle and knowing how to create one efficiently can make a big difference.

But what is a sitemap, exactly, why is it so important, and most importantly, how do you create one? Answers to all these questions, as well as how to resolve the most common sitemap issues you might encounter are waiting for you below.

Without further ado, let’s dive in!

Why Are Sitemaps Important? The Benefits of Using a Sitemap

At the rate Googlebot and other search engine bots work, they will find and index your site on their own, sooner or later. However, that can take time and doesn’t guarantee they will see everything you want them to. Given the massive popularity of Google and the importance of organic (search engine) traffic in general, you want to do everything in your power to help search engine bots and your visitors understand your site. That’s where sitemaps come in.

Sitemaps are a way for a website to communicate with search engines. A sitemap alleviates any concerns by ensuring that Googlebot sees all the content you have to offer and understands how it’s organized, whether your website has any internal linking structure or not. Not only are sitemaps crucial for search engines and indexing, but they can also be very helpful to users searching for a specific page or information on your website.

In short, some of the main benefits of using a sitemap are:

  • Improved crawling and indexation – When you have a strong HTML sitemap, the crawlers can discover and understand your pages much easier. Therefore, the indexation process and displaying of your website in search results will be faster, and you will ensure all pages on your website can be found, both by bots and the users.
  • Easier Navigation – Not only is a sitemap useful in letting your visitors know what your website is all about, but it also makes it easier for them to find what they are looking for, as it helps them locate a topic or page by navigating through the site’s menus or searching the site.
  • Better Loading Speed – A sitemap is also a great way to improve your website’s speed because it allows you to look at your website’s structure and identify any problems you might have overlooked. It will also tell you if anything is slowing down the loading process of your website that you should pay attention to.
  • Smart Website Planning – A sitemap can help you plan your website’s design, content, and structure by providing a clean structural layout before you even start building it. HTML, text, and visual sitemaps can serve as a “blueprint” to your website’s birth or rebirth and help web designers understand the pages on the site and how they are all laid out during the planning stages.

Does Your Website Need a Sitemap?

Technically, you don’t necessarily need a sitemap. While sitemaps are a worthwhile addition to any website, they are far more helpful to websites that meet certain criteria. So, a sitemap will be the most beneficial and basically a must-have if:

  •       You have a large website
  •       You have a new website
  •       You change your website’s content frequently
  •       You want to index fresh content very fast
  •       Your website has fewer backlinks / external links

Creating a Sitemap for Your Website

For the reasons mentioned above, creating a sitemap for your site can significantly benefit you in the long run. Luckily, you don’t need to be a savvy SEO pro to create a sitemap for your website – it’s actually a lot less complex than it might seem. Time to cut into the nitty-gritty!

How to Create an XML Sitemap

XML sitemaps provide a faster and much more effective way for web crawlers (also known as spiders, bots, or automatic indexers) to discover, understand, and index web pages. An XML sitemap basically tells Google and other search engines what your important web pages are and how they are connected. We could say an XML sitemap is an XML file that lists a site’s URLs and additional metadata about each one. 

There are two approaches to creating an XML sitemap – automatically (by using a tool provided by your website’s platform or an online sitemap generator)  or manually, by building one from scratch. The latter is the savviest way to go, but in return, you’ll get a fully-customizable sitemap, making it the most scalable. If you’re ready to  get your hands dirty, you need to:

  1.       Review the structure of your pages and gather all of your site’s URLs
  2.       Add/code your URLs
  3.       Validate and confirm your URLs
  4.       Add your sitemap to the root folder and robots.txt
  5.       Submit your sitemap to search engines – in the case of Google, you can do it through Google Search Console.

Make sure to include only important and high-quality web pages in your sitemap – the ones you want to rank in the SERPs and show to the users.

How to Create an HTML Sitemap

While XML sitemaps help search engines crawl a website more efficiently, it’s also essential to keep your users happy by organizing your website for seamless navigation, which is where an HTML sitemap comes in. An HTML (short for “hypertext markup language”) sitemap includes every page on your website. Think of it as a table of contents – a bulleted outline text version of the site navigation with links to the main pages on the website.

You can create an HTML sitemap by using a generator or a CMS plug-in. If you have a smaller website and some basic HTML knowledge, you can do it manually by listing all the links on your website and organizing them according to pages and subpages. Then simply add your sitemap to Google Search Console. Also, don’t forget to optimize and regularly update your HTML sitemap.

Sitemap Issues Resolved: How to Fix the Most Common Sitemap Errors

A sitemap offers many benefits, but only if when done correctly. If your site map is not properly formatted and submitted, you risk encountering a number of issues. If you want every page of your website to be navigated, crawled, and indexed correctly, you need to keep your sitemap free of any errors.

Worry not, because we’re here to help you stay ahead of the curve by providing solutions to the most common sitemaps issues you might encounter, so you would know what to look out for and nip them in the bud if they ever occur!

“3XX Redirect In Sitemap” Error

This common sitemap issue reports URLs in a website’s sitemap files that return one of the 3xx (or redirection) HTTP status codes. This means that the URL in question returns a “redirect” (3XX) yet is included in an XML file. You are being told the URL in the sitemap gets redirected to a different URL. If search engines run into redirecting URLs in your sitemaps, they get confusing signals, which can cause indexability issues.

This is why you should fix the problem as soon as possible. You must clean your sitemap by replacing all redirecting URLs with the destination ones. If these links are already on your sitemap, you should simply delete the wrong URLs. Your sitemap files must only include the live URLs that return the 200 (OK) response code.

 “4XX Page In Sitemap” Error

4xx URLs in a sitemap mislead search engines, making them index pages that don’t exist (like 404 (Not Found) and 410 (Gone)) or are unavailable / have restricted access (401 (Unauthorized), 403 (Forbidden)), which risks these pages getting ignored in the future. 4xx error codes all indicate the root of the problem is from the client’s side.

To fix this error, check if the sitemap URL is correct, as these errors often occur from simply misspelling the URL. Repair any broken internal links and remove all 4xx URLs from your sitemaps. If the page is supposed to be crawled and indexed by bots, change it to a live URL with a 200 (OK) response code.

“5XX Page In Sitemap” Error

Unlike the 3xx and 4xx ones, 5XX sitemap errors indicate an issue with the server rather than the website, hence the “server error” nickname. The 5xx HTTP status codes mean that the server failed to fulfill a request due to unexpected problems. This means that your server might be misconfigured, overloaded, slow, or that there is a coding problem.

Try reloading the page, restarting your browser, and clearing the cache and cookies. Temporarily deactivate the browser’s extensions as faulty plugins often cause 5xx errors. Check for errors in code or config files, permissions, corrupted .htaccess files, and issues with PHP programming. If you can’t seem to solve 5xx errors or they persist, you should address your developer or hosting provider to resolve this issue before it causes indexability problems.

“Page from sitemap timed out” Error

A 504 gateway timeout error means that a URL is listed in your sitemap but that it took too long for the server to respond and fulfill the request, so the page wasn’t loaded. This problem is usually caused by server issues (the server being misconfigured or overloaded) or an issue with the URL itself. Search engines won’t be able to access and index the pages that timeout, and surely, you don’t want that.

It’s worth checking Google Search Console for crawl errors to see if there are any issues with URLs timing out and making the necessary changes to the code. If the server cannot handle the load, you might need to slow down the crawling speed. In case of server issues, you should contact your web developer or hosting provider to understand what is causing the timeouts and fix them accordingly.

Sitemaps Keep Everyone Happy

Having well-structured sitemaps in place can strengthen your website’s structure and simplify navigation. Sitemaps keep any confusion at bay by providing a “bird’s-eye view” of your entire website and, in the long run, make you, search engine bots, and your users happy.

On the plus side, it doesn’t cost anything to create a sitemap, nor is it a particularly difficult or time-consuming task. Even if your website’s internal linking is already up to scratch, there are no known risks or penalties related to sitemap – only potential benefits. You have nothing to lose and a lot to gain by creating a sitemap for your website. 

So, why not give it a go?

Having well-structured sitemaps in place can strengthen your website’s structure and simplify navigation. Sitemaps keep any confusion at bay by providing a “bird’s-eye view” of your entire website and, in the long run, make you, search engine bots, and your users happy.

On the plus side, it doesn’t cost anything to create a sitemap, nor is it a particularly difficult or time-consuming task. Even if your website’s internal linking is already up to scratch, there are no known risks or penalties related to sitemap – only potential benefits. You have nothing to lose and a lot to gain by creating a sitemap for your website. 

So, why not give it a go?